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I've been looking to buy a tower-style server for our small office's network. It will be running installing Windows 2008 SBS, and its main functions will be Exchange, VPN, file sharing, and printer sharing. After spending a lot of time at Dell's website, I figured out that I could get everything I know I need, for significantly less money, by buying a box they're selling as a "workstation". This includes a quad-core Xeon processor and a RAID controller. Whether I buy a server or workstation, I'm already planning on buying RAM and HDD upgrades from a cheaper source. The servers in the price range I'm looking at don't have ECC RAM, anyway.

If I've got a server-class processor, a RAID controller, and a good server OS, what would I lose by using a "workstation"? I've always been a bit unclear on what that word means.

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Thanks to everybody who answered. Based on your answers, and a little more looking at what we really need for a server, I've decided to go with a server with little bit lower-end Xeon CPU. Turns out the real problem was that my CPU standards were too high, and that Dell only puts the fastest CPUs in higher-end servers than we would otherwise need. –  kcrumley Aug 6 '09 at 22:39
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14 Answers 14

up vote 7 down vote accepted

If I've got a server-class processor, a RAID controller, and a good server OS, what would I lose by using a "workstation"?

You would lose very little, but there is a difference between "workstation" and "server" level products. Typically, they're the parts they don't list, like motherboards, chipsets, buses, etc. etc.

Server "level" type chipsets and features (and quality) are really geared towards server level requirements (stability over speed, reliability, blah blah blah) or properties that servers need over desktops. Workstations tend to be more of a desktop performance oriented machine whereas servers are more concerned with reliability and uptime.

For example, some server level chipsets allow for massive amounts of RAM (32GB-64GB-128GB) and (more) stable RAM (ECC, buffering) whereas workstation chipsets are only able to max out at 16GB and would take speed over stability (to some degree). This of course isn't a big deal for a workstation level user but if you add the context of running server level applications/services and over time you'll see the difference.

It will be running installing Windows 2008 SBS, and its main functions will be Exchange, VPN, file sharing, and printer sharing.

I don't see any huge problems with running a server from a workstation model in this specific case, but bear in mind, the divide for quality of parts from workstation to servers is wider than most realize. Keep in mind scaling up vs. scaling out. If you want to add more storage, RAM, CPUs to help ease the workload (months/years from now), what if you can't do it in the workstation? What happens if you have to buy another server/workstation whereas in a server all you needed to do was add another CPU/RAM to alleviate issues. Servers are typically built to be upgraded. Don't neglect this.

I figured out that I could get everything I know I need, for significantly less money, by buying a box they're selling as a "workstation"

If your savings are substantial (~$750+) I'd say the workstation might be a better budget buy. If the price differential isn't all that great, spend the difference on parts that are geared towards server level service. Don't skimp out on a few bucks here or there when a little money now saves you pains and headaches down the road. You'll sleep better at night and be thankful you hadn't had any major hardware issues over the years.

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Just to chime in: Enterprise-level SCSI drives are significantly better than your standard workstation drives for reliability. –  romandas Aug 5 '09 at 20:51
    
Agreed. SCSI, SAS are more costly but often more reliable than their SATA counterparts. I'd also add that a real RAID controller is just as (if not more so) important as the hard disks. –  osij2is Aug 5 '09 at 21:13
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Big consideration here...you don't mention how many people are using this server, and you don't talk about how important this system will be for your business purposes.

Servers come with better hardware and support. For example, most Dell servers have dual gigabit nics, RAID hardware and hot-swap bays, dual power supplies, and when you call them and tell them that XYZ isn't working you get people to support you until it's working (in theory). You also get management functions in the hardware and software (openmanage software [shudder], and the hardware sensors so you get nice output from things like VMWare ESXi and the Openmanage software telling you about operating temp, fan speed, electrical faults, processor status, etc.)

You're mentioning file server and VPN plus Exchange. Modern exchange best practices is to not do that...you have a dedicated system for it because it's a resource HOG, and for most email purposes it's overkill. You really need an office that is going to actually use scheduling and contacts and directory and all those whiz-bang features to justify the cost, otherwise you can go for something that will really save you more in the long run to do just email. That's my two cents on it.

If this is important to the business, you definitely need a backup plan in place. This isn't thinking as if, "okay, I need a beefy system that can do X, Y, and Z! Voila!", but also, "How much crap am I in when a hard disk goes bad?", or, "Are there rules that say we need data retention for ", or, "how much trouble am I in if a controller dies?". RAID helps, but it's not infallible. And it's not a backup. That's one reason to have a system in place to keep from having one machine's death causing the business to grind to a halt.

Okay...that said...my approach would be to weigh a couple options. One, split your budget up to have multiple systems to divide the workload. It's not so bad if one system dies and you can't print for a little bit (in most cases). You also need a good backup server in place.

Second, virtualize it. Invest in getting a couple white-box systems with some heft and virtualize each system you need to divide up the load. Using two systems you can split loads and have a backup in case one system dies.

Third, combine one and two. Couple of white boxes with VMWare ESXi or XenServer loaded with RAM to handle VM's for printing, VPN server, etc. Even Exchange can be virtualized but it's not supported by MS. File server can be another inexpensive system running something like FreeNAS or OpenFiler, and a backup server with plenty of capacity to handle backing everything up periodically will save you headaches down the road. The separate VM's will ease some management chores and separation of duties means when you modify one system's config (oh boy! New antivirus update just fubar'ed the server again!) then it won't kill every service just because of one thing being finicky. I find it's also easier to recover from problems using VM's because you can get stateful backups. Something kills a machine (or host computer) you copy the VM to another machine and bring it up just like before. Less fuss and muss.

Anyway, serving up a few people on some thrown-together hardware works fine. Up the workload, and you'll have problems. Again you only mention "small office" which could be less than ten or less than 50 or for some people less than 100.

Unless there's a reason you need MS and Exchange, I'd consider running an inexpensive system for OpenFiler/FreeNAS (supports software RAID), a system for backup, and a couple boxes made to run ESXi on which to run your other tasks if possible, and if it's straight email people need you can run Postfix on Linux to save licensing and bloat. If your people are actually going to use the extra features then revert to Exchange (especially if they're already using Active Directory).

Last thing...you can look at the Dell Outlet store for used systems to get decent deals on server-class hardware, or old systems on Ebay. Sometimes getting decent "server class" hardware isn't all that horrible. Otherwise you can make white box servers for things like ESXi to run on if you google "white box esxi" and "$600 esxi".

Hope these suggestions help

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Generally the main difference is in the quality and features of the hardware, as well as the support offered by the vendor. Server hardware often has features to ensure uptime or easy maintenance in a data centre:

  • Rack mountable
  • Hot swappable components (sometimes even CPUs are hot-swappable)
  • Redundant components such as power supplies
  • Cooling might be more efficient

In addition, you often get server-class hardware such as network cards, which may mean better performance (not guaranteed).

If your needs are small or your budget really constrained, a non-server computer can act as a server. But you will likely pay for it down the road in maintenance costs. Also take note of the warranty and service contract differences. Does your workstation have the same on-site repair, with the same guarantees for response time from a technician? Etc.

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The servers will generally have better specs I think. They are often 'hidden' specs, such as as larger caches on the hard drives and processors, faster buses, etc. I would try to be sure that you are actually saving money. Other parts might not be of the same quality as well, such as the power supplies and cooling.

Its okay to use workstations as servers, but you generally get what you pay for. Also, make sure you 'server class' processor is actually supported by the motherboard.

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Usually from manufacturers like dell, Server class hardware comes with management utilities, etc. Also From my experience Dell's Server class hardware is of generally higher quality. There also may be limitations on the Processor and the motherboard(sometimes they disable virtualization and other processor/motherboard features, figuring they want you to buy server class hardware to do that).

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Another thing that I haven't seen mentioned yet is that systems advertised as servers are designed to run 24/7 and tend to have more cooling on the whole system rather than just the main components, leading to better reliability.

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For a small office, you'd probably be able to get by on a workstation-class machine, at least for now. As others have mentioned, though, this depends on the number of users that are hitting it and the reliability requirements. If you can't afford downtime or have more than 10-15 people, I'd spend the little bit extra and get a server-class machine. You probably wouldn't use things like hot-swappable drives or management tools in a small office, but the redundancy, cooling, and ability to handle faster drives would be good to have.

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My first thought was that you won't have hot-swappable redundant power supplies. You'll also might be missing out on faster disks and a much better RAID controller, they're not all the same.

It can be done, but know that the two architectures are most definitely not the same. Pick the right tool for the job.

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Others have mentioned that servers have things like hot-swap redundant power supplies.

One important thing you won't get on a workstation that you will on a real server is support for multiple hot-swap drives. Workstations often have RAID support, but it's usually not meant for RAID 5/6/10, and workstations don't normally have a backplane and hard drives in carriers that can be hot-swapped if one fails.

You'd also have to consider driver support for the workstation hardware. I'm more familiar with HP, but in one case when we tried to use an HP high-performance workstation as a temporary server, we couldn't get the video card to work in anything better than SVGA at 256 colours. If you have to add a few cards to the workstation, the cost starts to go up.

If the company can live with the limitations of a workstation (e.g. downtime to replace a bad disk), it can make sense, but I've always found that it's not that much more expensive to go with real server hardware.

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Quite simple - server hardware is designed to be capable of having 10s or 100s or 1000s of people simultaneously accessing it, workstation hardware is designed to be accessed by ONE concurrent user. This means wider system busses, better caching, all the good stuff.

Server hardware is also designed to be able to keep on trucking 24/7 under inhospitable conditions, whereas workstation hardware isn't. So you've got better quality more robust components versus (comparatively) el-cheapo bits and pieces.

This I suppose is something that everyone toys with at some stage, but it's only saving money in the short term, it's going to give your users a bad experience, and you're running a huge risk of the thing collapsing on you in the middle of a working day.

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That's not really true... workstations can easily support hundreds or thousands of users, especially if you're using the right software. Even Exchange can run on workstation-class hardware. –  Ernie Aug 5 '09 at 20:59
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and non-ECC memory.

Dell's workstations (not talking about pumped-up desktops) are available with ECC memory.

That said, I would still side with the faction recommending a true Server - especially running Small Biz, which throws a lot of different apps at one box.

Price some of their less expensive Workgroup Servers, if you don't have a lot of users.

Dave

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Lack of redundancy would be the biggest thing, ESPECIALLY running Exchange. With a workstation class machine, you will only get an onboard RAID 0/1 controller, single power supply, and non-ECC memory. Also, since you are running SBS, which is exactly meant to jam pack a ton of MS features onto one box, you are essentially putting all of your eggs in one basket.

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Server Raid adapters those days have RAM-backed cache. Those provide negligible benefit to workstation workloads, but can give 10x speed ups to multi-user database workloads. In effect, they make fsync instantaneous, whereas otherwise each transaction has to be written to disk, serially.

Furthermore servers have management cards, which come handy if you don't have someone nearby while the server is being used. If it's ok for you that your server goes down for a whole week end, you don't really need it, of course. Obviously, you could also buy an IP KVM and an APC remote power switch, but that would cost you more in the end.

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Another issue that you need hot-swappable drives for: you don't just have to worry about when a hard drive goes bad, but when you have to upgrade it too. With hot-swappable drives, you just put more drives in, then work in software to grow your RAID array, or format the disk, or whatever you need to do to make a new drive ready. If they're not... then the server goes down for the 15-30 minutes to install the new drive... assuming that the installation works. If it doesn't then you can count on an hour or more. I'm sure you'd also appreciate hot swapping when you upgrade because then you don't have to do it after hours. If you get paid overtime, it would probably be worth it in actual dollars.

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